Personal Media

Essay for Cultureweek, dated October 4, 2005.

Nearly 30 percent of American teenagers make their own media by sending photos via their cell phones, while 45 percent experiment with or created a blog, according to an August 2005 survey by Intellliseek, Inc. The total number of weblogs worldwide is estimated around 25 million, while compiled statistics at Technorati.com suggest this number doubles approximately every 5 months.

The buzz in the media industry today is all about so-called 'user-generated media', of which the pictures of products you can upload yourself at Amazon.com, your auctions of your family antiques at eBay.com, the ad to sublet your apartment in Indianapolis at Craigslist.com, and the blog you maintain about your life at Blogger.com are all examples. Remember this: we used to be 'just' the audience. Now we create more content (and sometimes much better content) than all the professional media industries of the world combined – in a single day.

The question is: why? What propels millions of people to post their private musings on a website or online, discussion platform for all to see? Why are we increasingly likely to trust recommendations and reviews from other users and consumers rather than following the educated advice of experts? What inspires thousands of people to start filming, recording or otherwise documenting their immediate surroundings in times of crisis (9/11, hurricane Katrina) - and uploading those documents to personal websites, 'citizen journalism' sections of mainstream media, or sharing them with countless others through so-called social software applications like Facebook, Orkut, and Friendster? Why do hundreds of thousands of gamers download Software Development Kits from game software companies’ websites and create or modify their own versions of the computer games they play online (like Counter-Strike, Everquest, or Star Wars Galaxies)?

I am not sure about the answer, but consider this: these global phenomenona are taking place in the context of increasingly 'hyperindividualized' societies, where (quoting Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman): "the way individual people define individually their individual problems and try to tackle them deploying individual skills and resources is the sole remaining 'public issue' and the sole object of 'public interest'." In other words: a society that functions on the basis of expert systems like professional journalists, advertisers, lawyers and politicians is most likely to be concerned about cookie-cutter information that impacts all of us. The perhaps unintented consequence of this is the fact that most if not all mainstream politics, marketing, moviemaking, advertising and journalism boils down to the (lowest) common denominator, leading to the 'one-size-fits-all' economy we have lived in for so long.

A thoroughly individualized society however prefers a different type of information: a highly personal media, where everything is an expression of what you feel, what you find important, what you hold dear, what you think is cool. As politicians nor journalists can provide each and every individual with such a customized reality, we are beginning to create our own. Cheaper and easier-to-use new media technologies cater to this sentiment, allowing us to increasingly bring the torrent of images and data in today's information age more fully under our control, manipulate it, tweak it, and then send it back into the media-saturated environment we are all multitasking in.

In other words, I think the reason why personal media are becoming so important in our everyday life – both as media we consume and as media we make ourselves – has to do with people relying more and more on themselves to shape their lives and develop their identity, where they used to adhere to a life shaped by the family they were born into, the place in the world they grew up in or the church they went to.

Research shows how teenagers in societies like the U.S. are extremely self-deterministic, don’t like to be told what to do by institutional authorities (like parents, teachers, priests, cops or politicians), and struggle to pay attention to the products of cookie-cutter culture (like mass lectures, Presidential speeches or Sunday sermons). A first response was to put such kids on Ritalin and Adderall - creating what some call the Generation Ritalin. Now, this is not a kids’ thing anymore, as a September 2005 review of prescriptions by Medco Health Solutions (paraphrasing a report in the Toledo Blade) showed how the use of drugs to treat ADHD among American adults more than doubled from 2000 to 2004, and spending on adult prescriptions grew by about 325 percent during the same period (especially for women).

Have you ever watched television the last decade (anything from CNN Headline News, The Sopranos to MTV), or tried to surf the web for fun? Of course you have, and what you've experienced was a complex, chaotic media universe consisting of bits and pieces edited, manipulated and compiled without context or linear structure. And now we’re talking back at these media - individually, and on a massive scale. Why listen to what self-proclaimed authorities have to say – whether its your Dad or the President - if they don’t really know you and everything they say sounds like a cliché? Why subsitute lived experience - however all over the place, seemingly random and mediated - for prescription drugs?

Making our own media has to do with a changing society, where individual experience outweighs authorative analysis, where the private is public, and where we can compare anything said or done with everything, and everyone, else on a worldwide scale. It seems we're just beginning to get used to this mindset, in media culture manifesting itself in terms of as Trendwatching.com put it: the emergence of a Generation C(ontent), where being individually creative translates into making your own media. The world has just become a much more interesting place - and its through looking at its (our) media we can see it moving - we’re just not sure whether its moving forward.